Saturday, February 17, 2007

Throwback Christians

From: Los Angeles Daily News

SIMI VALLEY - The twenty-somethings trickle into the tiny apartment.

They laugh loudly and share the previous week's stories about their spiritual struggles. Two slide into the bedroom to hash out a disagreement while the host busily places snacks on the table. Then the group gathers in the living room to pray.

This scene is not unlike a typical Bible study. No altar, no stained-glass windows, no pastor in a purple robe - simply the message of Christ in a small-group format.

But this is not Bible study. For these eight refugees of traditional Christianity, this Tuesday night is like Sunday morning. This is their sanctuary. This is where they pray and sing and study and take Communion.

This is house church.

"You walk into church and people are like, `Hey, how are you? God bless, man.' Really, inside, you could be completely dead, dying, rotting inside. But you are never going to share that because there is no authenticity about doing life with people in mainstream church," said Mike Dickran, 25, of Camarillo.

"What is so exciting about doing small-group house church is just the chance to be real."

At a time when megachurches are blooming, when the yardstick for success seems to be the fullness of pews and the weight of offering plates, a growing number of Christians are casting aside institution for intimacy and gathering weekly in homes, apartments, parks or wherever the Spirit moves them.

"It's not about where we meet or how big the sound system is or even how many seats we fill," said Chris Burton, a former college pastor at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village who left seven years ago to begin a Simi Valley house church that has grown into five separate gatherings, including the one Dickran attends.

"Those things are not indications of success for us - rather, personal commitment to the Lord and life transformation."

House churchers view themselves as throwback Christians. They express a nostalgia for pre-Nicean Christianity, before the canons and creeds and clergy.

The most oft-cited depiction of first-century Christians comes from the New Testament book of Acts, Chapter 2:

"Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

Just how quickly house churches are multiplying is a source of debate.

A Ventura-based Christian polling organization reported last summer that house-church attendance had grown about tenfold during the past decade, to 20 million, or 9 percent of Americans, up from about 1 percent in 1996.

"More believers are going back and looking at the early church, looking at the book of Acts and seeing these people who had such a vibrant faith," said George Barna, founder of the Barna Group.

"There were no positions, there were no salary scales, there were no programs. It was just people meeting in living rooms."

The Center for Missional Research, with the help of Zogby International, followed with its own study that found that most people who attend weekly house gatherings also attend traditional churches. Only 1.4 percent of those surveyed attended house church only.

Although registered house churches are tracked by various Web sites, countless others operate under the radar. They are structured to spin off new groups as they grow beyond about 20 members.

Observers agree the house-church movement is spreading, thanks largely to what they call a post-modern Christianity that has left behind the confines of church walls and traditions.

"It is going to be around for a long time and may provide an example for institutional Christianity," said Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. "But it's not going to take over."

Long the norm in Asia, Africa and Soviet-era Russia - where Christians met in homes out of necessity - only recently has house church (also dubbed "home church" and "simple church") become an American phenomenon.

"It is about authenticity," said Brian McLaren, a post-modern Christian leader and author of "A New Kind of Christian." "Church services have succeeded at being more characterized by excellence, but one of the consequences of that excellence is artificiality and the feeling that everything is produced and that it is a show."

House church is one of a number of alternatives to traditional church services. It raises questions about the long-term spiritual health of members, said Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and co-author of "Emerging Churches."

"This kind of doing your own little thing means you are separated from Christian tradition and wisdom over the centuries," Gibbs said. "Who is it you are gathering into these groups? Are you gathering malcontents or are you genuinely reaching out to your neighbors and friends who never got involved in the church?"

There also is a lack of accountability to outside leadership, critics say. And groups are prone to implosion if leaders burn out or fail.

In Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, the groups spawned by Burton and Adam Finlay gather two Saturdays a month to remain connected and accountable and meet separately each week for church services.

With a bachelor's degree in theology from The King's College, a small Pentecostal school in Van Nuys, Finlay planned to be a professional minister. Instead, the 27-year-old newlywed said, God guided him to installing home-entertainment systems by day and leading a house church Tuesday nights.

After reading through the Gospels, the church at Finlay's - he intentionally doesn't call it his church - began studying Acts.

Finlay led a recent discussion, but everyone was encouraged to add his or her own religious experience and theological understanding.

"Um, if I can just interject something real quick," Dickran said before drawing a parallel between God's selection of the Apostle Paul for a specific mission and the divine calling of modern-day Christians to certain tasks.

This is one of the benefits of house church. Another Barna study, published last month, reported that house churchers are dramatically more satisfied than traditional churchgoers with their group's leadership, faith commitment, level of personal connectedness and spiritual nurturing.

"I really can't think of anything that is lacking here that a larger church has because of the intimacy and close fellowship," said Jeff Savage, 28. "So I really couldn't say I miss anything about a large church."